The four classic novels of Chinese literature

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Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber; these four novels form the core of Chinese classical literature and still inform modern culture. As with Dante or Shakespeare in Europe, they are touchstones to which Chinese literary culture persistently returns to discover new relevance and fresh insight.

Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, these four novels are the bedrock of Chinese literary culture. Their influence has spread across Asia to inform elements of Japanese, Korean and South East Asian mythology. The writing and dissemination of these four works marked the emergence of the novel form in China as a counterpart to more refined philosophical and poetic works. The more expansive form of the novel allowed for a synthesis of the historical and the mythological, whilst also developing along more accessible narrative lines. These works thus marked a limited but notable democratization of literature which is perhaps most evident in their use of vernacular Chinese, rather than the Classical Chinese which had previously dominated. These four works also revealed the novel’s potential to embrace a multitude of perspectives, and to allow for irony; this permitted writers to voice previously suppressed critiques about the ruling order, whilst also expressing the vast multitude of voices which made up the Chinese populace.

Water Margin

Published in the 14th century, Water Margin was the first of the four classical novels to be released, and introduced the vernacular form and style which the others would adhere to. The title has been translated in a number of ways, including as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang, and whilst doubts persist over the identity of the author, most attribute it to Shi Nai’an, a writer from Suzhou. The novel is set in the Song dynasty and depicts a group of outlaws who eventually go on to serve the Emperor in battling foreign invaders. It was based on the real life story of the outlaw Song Jiang, who was defeated by the Emperor in the 12th century, and whose gang of 36 outlaws came to populate folk tales throughout China…

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